UKRAINE AND WOMEN at Hot Docs 2014 PART TWO: UKRAINE IS NOT A BROTHEL
Dir. Kitty Green Review By Greg Klymkiw
Preamble 1 - The Bug
So there we were in "the Old Country". Upon entering a nondescript government office building in Kyiv, my wife and I both required immediate use of the, uh, facilities. I spotted the Men's washroom at once, its door adorned with the telltale Cyrillic letter pronounced "Ch" for "Choloveek" (Man), but I couldn't see where the women's washroom was. I asked Sasha, our fixer-translator-driver (don't go to Ukraine without one) the whereabouts of the ladies' "convenience". He pointed down the hallway. "When you get to end, turn right," he said in slightly broken English, then laughed and added, "Look for bug." I guffawed heartily in response. It's a good, old fashioned joke amongst Ukrainian men. The Cyrillic letter emblazoned upon the doors of female water closets represents the Ukrainian word "zheenka". Pronounced "zh", the word's first letter, printed or hand-written, does indeed look like a bug. Most tellingly, the word "zheenka" not only means "woman", but is in fact the word used for "wife". They are, essentially, one and the same. If you're married or otherwise significantly-othered, your wife is your woman. Yes, in a virulently patriarchal society and culture, women in Ukraine, at least in abbreviation, are little more than bugs - to be squashed, of course, as Sasha's "look for bug" joke suggested. "This is my woman," you would say whilst introducing someone to your wife if, in fact, you bothered to introduce your "bug" at all.
Preamble 2 - Sexual Slavery
Ukraine's sex industry since the collapse of Communism was huge. Brothels and strip clubs filled (and continue to fill) every city. All of it is run by gangsters (or, if you will, most government officials). The sex slavery business, as first identified in Victor Malarek's seminal book "The Natashas" was, during most of the 90s and early 2000s, especially prevalent in snatching its victims from Ukraine. Poverty runs rampant and women are often looked upon as property. During those dark days, we personally observed the especially horrific sex slave underground running out of the nation's orphanages where pimps and their vans, the windows painted black in the rear holding areas, would wait daily for the latest teenage girls being officially released into a world of poverty. As they'd stagger, stunned and terrified, into a brave new world, the pimps would herd them into the vans and off they'd go - sold into sex slavery the world over.
Preamble 3 - Femen
This, then, is the world that inspired "Femen", one of the most influential performance art and activist movements in the world. "Femen" gained fame and notoriety for their protests in public places. This clutch of gorgeous, young Ukrainian women, a la Russia's "Pussy Riot", but somehow far bolder and decidedly feminist in their approach, would show up in places often tied to Ukraine's patriarchy (the bell tower at Kyiv's Orthodox Vatican-styled ancient city, The Lavra, for instance) and tear their clothes off and nakedly, brazenly, bare their breasts in the name of Ukrainian womanhood to declare, first and foremost, that Ukraine is NOT a brothel.
This is a beautifully shot and finely observed film that takes us behind the scenes as the women prepare for their protests, then follows them to a variety of said protests, covers the savage responses of both the public and authorities and is finally, chockfull of insightful interviews dolloped throughout, zeroing in on these clearly very intelligent and vibrant young women.
The politics and feminism are freewheeling and fun, but as the movie progresses, danger does lurk behind every corner. Protest patriarchy in a patriarchal (and frankly corrupt, if not downright criminal) society, trouble is sure to follow, especially as demonstrated upon discovering the horrific tale of Femen's protest field trip to Belarus where the ladies are stripped naked and shoved into a forest on the border of Ukraine - forced at gunpoint to march their way back to their homeland.
Where the film begins to shock - yes, at least for me - is with the introduction of a genuinely malevolent force behind the Femen movement. There are hints throughout, to be sure, but we tend to file them under, "Yeah, let's ignore this and have fun with the lassies instead." Once the noxious influence is revealed in its full and grotesquely foul form, we begin to realize that something is a tad rotten in the state of the birthplace of Kyivan-Rus. What's revealed to us (as it was, ultimately to Green as she was making the film), seems diabolically nefarious. The activities of Femen become infused with the sort of foul patriarchal manipulations that began to remind me of the horrendous discoveries I was making in Ukraine during my own sojourns. What's revealed as the motivating force behind the feminist performance artists feels like the very thing designed to keep women in their place in Ukraine.
Once we come face to face with a Rasputin-like evil (no more "rah, rah"), Ukraine is Not a Brothel becomes sickeningly creepy. This, of course, is what makes for great drama and great cinema - when the bed of roses is growing from within a fetid fertilizer of rank manipulation.
In spite of this surprising element, director Green, girds all her resolve and plunges forward, taking her exploration of these women well beyond the unexpected creep factor. Finally, she sticks to the women with a loyalty that can ONLY come from building enough trust in her subjects that she can begin to ask EXTREMELY tough questions.
The answers the Femen ladies provide are full of self reflection, self analysis and the sort of intelligence we first fell for - in spite of what we discover about them a little past the halfway point. If anything, the film is almost perfectly structured to mirror the actual events that transpired in chronological order. The film transforms, quite miraculously and once we become aware of it. we're cascaded along with the kind of magic that's not only unique to the form of documentary, but organically inherent in cinema at its most profound levels. Green's film is, finally, as much an exploration for us, as it is for its filmmaker and most profoundly, for the brilliant young women of Femen.
Ukraine is currently on the precipice of disaster or glory. If Green's film proves anything (and believe me, it proves a whole LOT), it especially suggests that Ukraine's future MUST include both women and youth. The old shackles of patriarchy need to be shaken free and if anything, it's women who might well be the force necessary to maintain Ukraine's freedom in the face of the greatest threat to the nation's sovereignty.
No beguiling Mona Lisa smile
In both these seminal works, Ukrainian women are either flanked by patriarchs, or indeed, represent patriarchal elements of Christianity. In contrast to this, the performance art as activism of Femen might well be the future of art and its place as a weapon, the final blow, if you will, against Ukraine's patriarchal dominance that keeps, not only its women at bay, but by extension, its youth, its very future.
|Murashko's Annunciation, Shevechenko's Kateryna|
Patriarchy all consuming: Imbuing the spirit,
surrounding the body of Ukrainian womanhood
In this sense, both the film and subjects of Ukraine is Not a Brothel, via the commitment and artistry of the movie's director, indeed seeks, I think, to prove that Ukraine is not ONLY not a brothel, but a country as a state of being rooted in its real power. Ukraine, personified as matriarchal, rather than patriarchal, is possibly the key to its future survival. As such, the country must not be bought and sold, but will need, in order to stave off the horse trading at every level, the kind of commitment and political will to change all that might only come via very concerted efforts to reflect upon what the goals must be and how to achieve them beyond all shackles, beyond all influence, save for that which comes from within.
Ukraine is Not a Brothel is playing at Toronto's Hot Docs 2014. ALL UKRAINIANS BUY YOUR TICKETS NOW. UKRAINIANS MUST, AS THEY ALWAYS DO, BUY EVERY AVAILABLE TICKET, THEN THEY MUST, AS UKRAINIANS ALWAYS DO, SHOW UP AT THE CINEMA SEVERAL HOURS BEFORE THE SHOW BEGINS, LINE-UP, AND THEN, TAKE THEIR SEATS THE SECOND THE DOORS OPEN AND SIT THERE UNTIL THE BITTER END. HOWEVER, UNLIKE EVENTS IN UKRAINIAN CHURCH BASEMENTS, THERE WILL NOT BE TORTES AND KAVA SERVED UP, SO BRING YOUR OWN TO EAT IN THE LOBBY AFTER THE MOVIE. UKRAINIANS WHO ACTUALLY HAVE INTERNET, CAN BUY THEIR TICKETS by visiting the Hot Docs website HERE. UKRAINIANS WITHOUT INTERNET MUST GO DOWNTOWN TO THE HOT DOCS BOXOFFICE AND BUY THEIR TICKETS IN PERSON. (Then again, those Ukrainians without internet won't be reading this, so perhaps there will be plenty of tickets for NON-Ukrainians.) Distributed by Kinosmith.
HERE IS A SPECIAL SURPRISE BONUS FOR UKRAINIANS AND
NON-UKRAINIANS VISITING THE HOT DOCS 2014 FESTIVAL IN TORONTO
WHO NEED A FEW SHOTS OF UKRAINIAN CULTURE - CANADIAN STYLE
NON-UKRAINIANS VISITING THE HOT DOCS 2014 FESTIVAL IN TORONTO
WHO NEED A FEW SHOTS OF UKRAINIAN CULTURE - CANADIAN STYLE
These are a few Ukrainian points of interest in Toronto. Alas, most of them are located on the west end of Toronto and are best accessed by car. If you are a filmmaker or other guest of the festival, insist that HOT DOCS let a bunch of you pile into official Hot Docs vehicles (and in Ukrainian tradition, with jars of open liquor - for you, not the drivers) and take you all over the city for these delectables. I also recommend you buy an extra suitcase to pack it with a care package of Ukrainian Food to take back with you to wherever you're coming from (unless you're coming from Ukraine). Here then are a few joints worth considering:
1. Fresh and Tasty
99 Advance Rd, Toronto, ON M8Z 2S6
This joint is owned by relatively recent Uke immigrants from Western Ukraine. They love it when you speak Uke to them. If you don't speak Uke, they DO speak English. They have the most amazing delectables at their meat counter. Your best bets are:
Ternopilska Kubassa: Cherry smoked, garlic overload, only the finest and freshest meat, innards and fat of pig.
Bukovynska Kubassa: Tangy, garlic-infused kubassa,
Kishka: This is the non-Jewish Uke kishka. Nobody in Toronto makes it as well. It's ALMOST as good as my Babunia's. Crushed garlic, mashed buckwheat and, of course, only the finest and freshest Blood of Pig.
Real Ukrainian Halvah in plastic containers on top of meat counter made from sunflower and honey.
The best fucking sweet cheese crepes known to man.
Real Ukrainian potato pancakes (in the Jewish parlance, latkes)
2. Future Bakery (NOT the ho-hum joint near the Bloor Cinema, though it'll do in a pinch), but rather the main store at:
106 North Queen, Etobicoke, ON M8Z 2E2
Fucking unbelievable selection of Uke breads and baked goods,
small or humungous tubs of real Uke Sour Cream,
homemade borscht in jars
3. Starsky - 2040 Dundas Street East (just east of HWY 427
Okay, they're Polish, but we won't hold this against them.
This is a humungous big box supermarket with every conceivable
Eastern European food product known to man - Polish, Uke, Russian
4. Astra Deli - 238 Bloor St W, Toronto, ON M6S 3B4
(416) 763-1093, near Runnymede Station
Smaller version of stuff available at the above, but it's specialty is
HOT FOODS for takeout.
5. KOOTA OOMA - 42 The Queensway Toronto, Ontario Canada M8Z 1N7
Great Ukrainian Kids Bookstore which also has pysanky supplies
to make your very own Uke Easter Eggs.
6. Ukrainian National Federation = 145 Evans Ave #210, Toronto, ON M8Z 5X8
The insane organization my family were founding members of. Hard to say if the Toronto version is worth visiting these days. If there are events scheduled, this could be fun. They have a bar inside and you can juice it up with Ukrainians. They have Ukrainian Saturday School and Ukrainian Dancing, but I suspect these will be of absolutely no use to you.
7. There are a shitload of Uke churches in the west end, but I can't imagine they'll be of interest, though the cathedral on Queen West and Bellwoods is kinda nice. Also, every one of these churches sells freshly prepared varenyky (perogies/pyrohy) prepared by old Uke ladies. Alas, they only sell them on Wednesdays, so you are possibly S.O.L. on this one.
8. St. Vladimir Institute -
620 Spadina Ave, Toronto, ON M5S
Kind of a smaller version of the Ukrainian National Federation, but mostly a residence for Ukrainian U of T students. Still, they sometimes have events, a great Uke library and if head honcho Lida is around, she heads up a lot of the cultural stuff there, so she might be worth meeting. I shot Zabava there, a vile short drama I wrote and directed (with GOVERNMENT MONEY from the Ontario Media Development Corporation) about young Ukrainian men being fucking pigs. I'm not sure I've ever been forgiven for this.
9. Baby Point Catering and Hall
343 Jane St, north of the Jane Street TTC station. (416) 767- 2623
Have a humungous Ukrainian meal catered for you and your Hot Docs pals. If Hot Docs is too cheap to send someone to pick up the food and bring it to your hotel, send a cab driver down there.
Just give them a call and ask for Ivanka or Petro or send an e-mail to email@example.com
Your best bets are the Pyrohy (get with potato and kapusta), Cabbage rolls, Knyshi, Patychky, Nalesnyky, Lots of Kapusta, Buckets of Mushroom Gravy and the Beef Roll-ups with pickle and bacon.
Here's the Baby Point Menu:
Well, even if you don't make it out to any of these, save this guide for your next trip to Hot Docs or TIFF.